Saturday, most of us heard the explosions at Atlas Castings & Technology.
The quick and the digitized pointed phones and handy cameras at the flames.
“Holy shit,” the bystanders blurt out.
“I hope nobody’s in there,” they say when they process what they are seeing.
Then they place the fireball. “That’s Atlas.”
Atlas, like so many of Tacoma’s other living-wage employers, is gritty, noisy and operates at odd hours. It sits deep in Nalley Valley, the artery through which much of Tacoma’s economic lifeblood circulates. Founded 109 years ago, Atlas was there long before the mall, the offices, the homes and businesses around it.
Those offices, wholesalers and commuter routes were quiet Saturday afternoon when a propane tanker truck owned by IXL Transportation Services pulled in to pipe liquid fuel into tanks owned by Atlas. Gas leaked and exploded. A few minutes later, the tanker itself blew. The driver was critically injured. Two Atlas workers and a pedestrian were treated and released. Businesses along Center Street and South Tacoma Way lost windows.
Bad as it was, we had a sense of miraculous delivery.
Saturday, 26 or 28 Atlas employees were working at the foundry, near the propane tanks. On a normal weekday, there would have been 350.
Traffic on South Tacoma Way and Center Street was light. The delivery truck axle propelled skyward by the blast missed vehicles on Highway 16’s Nalley Valley overpass.
Firefighters responding to the explosion report were parked nearby when they noticed a change in the hissing sound of the gas. They pulled back in time to get out of the way of the larger explosion when the tanker blew up.
It was as if an angel in a hard hat had deployed his wings over most of the right spots at the right time.
Now those associated with the foundry are dealing with the fallout.
Along Center and South Tacoma Way, business owners have ordered new windows. In our newsroom, we’ve cleaned up the gunk that fell from our ceiling tiles. At the site of the explosion, four lawyers spent Tuesday inspecting and assessing evidence.
Across Wilkeson Street from the foundry, Atlas’ human resources team was fielding calls from employees.
“They’re calling the heck out of us,” said L. Benjamin King, the human resources director. “They want to get back to work. No one has said ‘I don’t want to work at Atlas.’”
That, he said, includes one of the injured workers, who said he was well enough to come back on light duty. King told him to stay home and heal. His job will be there when he’s ready.
Most of the foundry survived in operable condition, and about half of Atlas’ 450 employees are back on the job, King said. He’s hoping to get the rest back within two weeks. Meanwhile, they’re eligible for unemployment benefits, he said.
William Dunger, who, at 53, is about to mark his 30th year at Atlas, was pleased to be back.
“My uncle, my dad and me, we all worked here. It’s a good place to work. It’s like a big family. My boss is like a dad,” said Dunger.
The foundry where he’s spent his career is part of the mysterious muscle of Tacoma. Most people never get inside it and don’t have a precise idea of what it does. But it’s always there, flexing.
In 2005, Atlas posted sales of $84 million. Most of its employees earn a living wage. It partners with Tacoma Community House to offer jobs to immigrants ready to join the work force. Atlas security guards patrol the neighborhood and help Tacoma police keep encampments out of the gulch’s hillside. Employees, said King, jump on every chance they get to volunteer and contribute.
“We want to be a friendly and resourceful neighbor,” he said.
As the fallout settles, let’s hope Atlas can remain that way.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677